There has been an explosion of telecoms services in the last few years and small Scottish businesses in particular are taking advantage of all that the internet and e-commerce can offer. For niche markets relying on overseas trade, the use of websites and encouragement of 'virtual' customers are two ways that companies outside the urban centres can prosper.
One drawback internet-reliant small businesses have found, however, is that conventional systems are often less than speedy, and phone lines can be tied up wasting precious potential ordering or processing time. Until now. With the introduction of broadband, the technological revolution has gone a step further to refine and improve the efficient use of the internet and all it is capable of. But what exactly is broadband? In simple terms it's a range of different technological options such as ASDL and cable modem which mean faster access to the internet; quicker download times (can be up to ten times faster); continuous internet access (in other words, you don't have to 'dial up' every time you want to find a website or send or receive emails) and usually a flat fee is paid so the service is not metered.
Catching the wave
All these advantages can make a huge (and money-saving) difference to companies, especially those who rely on such links to communicate with the outside world. So Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have been ahead of the game with some imaginative initiatives to encourage communities and businesses to embrace the possibilities of broadband. One of the interesting aspects of all this is that communities have to work together if they want to get connected. In order for broadband to be implemented, individuals must register their interest. There are so-called 'trigger targets' set and only when the target is reached will the service be installed. Many communities have pulled together to campaign for the service which has far-reaching implications for everyone living in a rural location. For small, island-based schools, for example, the internet is already used as a vital educational tool. Broadband means that complex images, short films, animation and video conferencing (or teaching) can all be exploited by schools, libraries, health centres and of course, businesses.
The Scottish Executive launched their broadband strategy back in 2001 and in 2002 the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning announced a 24 million initiative. There has been a particular drive to help the Highlands and Islands become the first rural region of the UK to achieve extensive broadband coverage. Unusually, given the scattered population, the infrastructure in the area is better than might be expected, mostly the result of imaginative European-funded partnerships between the private sector and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Even so, the extensive coverage target is a challenge and the organisations involved have started to meet it with the launch of Hi-Wide in September 2003 a not-for-profit company that aims to bring broadband to areas of Scotland assisted by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
The proportion of small Scottish businesses with a website now stands at 46%, with broadband uptake more than trebling in the last twelve months. Even so, some remain to be convinced, and although it is estimated that three quarters of rural businesses in Scotland have access to broadband, only one in five is currently using it. But all those involved in technological expansion are confident that more and more people will gradually join the broadband converts.
So how can signing up to broadband really help a small business? In very real terms, it seems, according to many new users. Take Anna St Clair who runs a thriving ceramics company. She sees broadband as a helpful business partner one that handles all her online ordering and invoicing immediately while she can take calls and place orders simultaneously.
Iain Ferguson, whose company The Write Image is located in the Lochaber area, supplies pictures to national newspapers which involves sending large image files down the line. He used to waste 'several long and frustrating minutes emailing pictures, when I really needed to be somewhere else. I snapped up broadband as soon as it was available.'
Tourism is an obvious winner when it comes to internet technology. Guests can check availability and book on-line, which makes a personally-planned trip for an overseas visitor that much easier to organise, as Hylda Marsh, who runs a complex of holiday cottages on the Isle of Mull, has found: 'We've seen an increase in bookings even in the short time we've had broadband. We can talk to potential clients in real-time via email and loading lots of photos onto the website is almost instant.'
A medium-sized architects and surveyors firm in Orkney has found broadband to be a tremendous plus. As the largest firm of construction professionals in the Orkney Isles, Pentarq operates its business from offices in Thurso and Kirkwall and designs and surveys buildings in both the public and private sector, including the local council, schools and housing associations. Strong communication links between the offices and clients in more remote locations are vital, and not having to wait around for information to come through has made all the difference to the business.
It's not just the more technically-minded among Scotland's entrepreneurs who are making the most of the Internet. At the 2003 Winners at the Web Awards, one of the finalists in the e-business Start-Up category was Richard Davies, founder of Wild West Foods. Richard didn't even own a computer when he started his Hebrides-based fledgling business, and instead used the internet connection at his local enterprise office. His specialist product is beef jerky which he sourced in Uruguay and just a year later he is not only graduating from individual sales to supplying the wholesale trade and multiple retail outlets, he is also moving to a new processing plant to meet increased demands. Without the internet, Richard wouldn't have found his core product, let alone customers who wanted to buy it.
Technology never stands still. Already scientists at Glasgow University are looking at ways of using simple light beams in communication systems. No more digging up the streets for cabling in the future information could be flashed across town and city rooftops in total security. And more lateral thinking has been going on at Scottish Water where a scheme is being piloted involving fibre optic cables running through the country's 24,000 miles of sewer networks. In Edinburgh, BT Scotland is keen to bring a touch of Manhattan to the city by setting up public 'wi-fi' zones - which basically allow people within 200 metres to log onto the internet using broadband speeds without plug-in connections. Users must own a wi-fi enabled device and although it might be a while before the capital itself is host to such 'hot spots', an Open Zone access point is set to open shortly at Edinburgh's Waverley Station.
So with commuters logging-on as they wait for the 6.15 to Queen Street, and crofters keen to surf the web rather than paddle slowly through it, it seems that no matter how remote the Scottish hideaway, there's no escaping the technological revolution. Though there will always be those who prefer a pen, a postcard and a stamp...